Indian Paintbrush growing locally.
The giant flowers on Soapweed Yucca.
Ghost plants of Placitas—part three
There sure are a lot of plant stories to talk about in this last part of the Ghost Plants of Placitas. Every plant has its stories, and these can become something like reading a plant’s history page by page in the open book of our local ecologies. As I write, cottonwood seeds are floating down like summer snows…
Here is another new word that is important to understand as it relates to our native plant populations. The word is ‘recruitment’ which, in the plant world, can be defined as “to replenish, to renew, to revitalize or to restore” plant populations. In general, recruitment means that there are more young plants coming up than the adults of the same species dying away. Unfortunately to me, it looks like many of the different local plants are dying away with little or no recruitment visible.
Now, on to the plants! I have a really exciting discovery to report. Remember when I wrote a while back that I had seen only three Mahonias or Algeritas around Placitas? Well I just found a bunch more. There is a really neat place southeast of the Village where we can see giant thirty-foot-tall New Mexico Locusts. This truly unique stand of large Locusts is at least twice the size of any other Locusts that I have ever seen here! The next trees that can be found there are a few beautiful Gambel Oaks which are far below their next known occurrence site about a mile up Route 165. But the really surprising find there is a good number of Algeritas—some of them ten feet tall or so. I was so happy to see them growing together and to further understand the stories of these three rare and intermixed shrub- to tree-sized species.
Then there is Buffalo Gourd—you know, the roadside plants with big gray leaves that make a bunch of perfectly round gourd fruits. There are a few strange things about this plant. One, it has a giant root, and I mean giant—almost the size of us humans. Two, it is one of the most bitter plants in the world and so it kind of stinks. And three, Buffalo Gourd has very few seed dispersal animals, in fact almost none at all. But in Connie Barlow’s book The Ghosts of Evolution, she says that maybe some of the extinct megafauna in the Southwest were its seed dispersal agents. It could have been the giant sloths that were here around twelve thousand years ago, with present day reports of sloths being really quite stinky.
Another group of plants to look for around here are the Banana Yuccas, the Soapweed Yuccas, and Beargrass—all of them in the Agave family. Let’s start with Beargrass—a truly amazing plant and not at all a grass. For some reason or another, I have paid great attention when pleasantly confronted by one of these charming plants. Beargrass is sometimes found starting under trees of all sorts. I have found a good number of them up in the low Sandia foothills pretty much due southwest of Placitas. I have also recently found a couple other small stands of Beargrass growing in the hills due north of Placitas. These stands of Beargrass both started with a big mother plant uphill whose seeds tumbled down the steep slopes, found a good home, and took root, creating a stand of ten or fifteen young plants.
Another related plant called Soapweed Yucca does have roots that make a soapy mixture that bubbles up through water. This natural lotion can be used for washing. But the real kicker is Banana Yucca, which can rarely be found here. Get this: When one collects a bunch of Banana Yucca seed fruits and lets them ripen they do, indeed, taste like bananas and even look sort of like yellow bananas. I have not seen any signs that local animals eat the fruit and thus disperse the seeds—I reckon this is because the very stiff and closely-packed leaves end with very strong points that coyotes and rabbits and many others would eat if they did not have to deal with the very pointed leaves. I have seen a very few Banana Yuccas that are nearly six feet, still with closely-packed sharp pointed leaves. I reckon that Banana Yucca’s seed dispersal animals way back when also died out when the megafauna went extinct about twelve thousand years ago.
Finally here is one last weird observation. Up in the Sandia Mountains there are two plant species that could very likely have grown down here around Placitas. One is Antelope Bitterbrush, which grows at an elevation range between 3,500 feet to eleven thousand feet and the other is Fendler’s Ceanothus, growing with an elevation range of five thousand to nine thousand feet. Both of these plants are nitrogen-fixing, which means that their leaves have a lot of nitrogen in them and thus the animal browsers can more quickly build up yet new protein. So I reckon that these two species did grow down here but they were pushed up into the Sandia Mountains because most all of the livestock and also native browsers down here really, really did like to feed upon them and thus they were killed off by overbrowsing. What do you think?
Thanks again for reading these sometimes strange stories of our wonderful native plants! Next up is the Ghost Ecologies of the Placitas area.
Geology of the Sandias: Sandia Crest geology walks
Have you wondered why the Sandias are where they are? Or wondered what you are seeing from the top of the Sandias as you look to the west?
Join us for a series of geology walks at the top of the Crest, Wednesday mornings July 8, July 22, and August 5 at 10:00 a.m. Meet your Forest Service guides at the south end of the lower parking lot at Sandia Crest, located at the end of the Crest Highway (Highway 536), accessed on the east side of the Sandia Mountains. Highway 536 is a spur of the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway.
Hikes are free, but a $3 amenity fee is charged at Forest Service sites along the Crest Highway and at Sandia Crest. America the Beautiful and Golden Age Passes are honored at these sites. The geology hikes are sponsored by Sandia Ranger District. Come join us to learn about the Sandias and enjoy the mountain views.
—From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I know of solar power systems that people can put on their roofs to generate electricity or heat water. Are there systems that serve whole neighborhoods?—Lee Helscel, via email
Collective bargaining is a good strategy when looking to get the best price on a given product or service. Solar power is no exception, and dozens of neighborhood-wide installations in the U.S. and Canada have created a new model whereby going solar can actually start to pencil out for individual homeowners.
One of the first neighborhood-wide solar installations in the world was at the master-planned community of Drake Landing in the town of Okotoks in Alberta, Canada. The entire community, now with more than fifty homes built and occupied, is heated by a neighborhood-wide “borehole thermal energy” system designed to store abundant solar energy underground during the summer and distribute it to each home as needed for space heating throughout the winter. The system, which launched in June 2007, now fulfills some ninety percent of each home’s space heating needs, with any slack taken up by fossil fuels.
While some planned communities like Drake Landing incorporated neighborhood solar power from the get-go, others decided it made sense after they were first built. One example is the deal that homeowners in Marin County, California can get in on, thanks to the hard work of the nonprofit GoSolarMarin. The group negotiated discounted group rates with several photovoltaic solar panel providers, and eventually signed on with SolarCity, a Silicon Valley-based solar provider that operates some thirty different “community solar programs” across California, Arizona, and Oregon.
GoSolarMarin was able to negotiate a rate some twenty-five percent lower than what a typical solar installation would cost for Marin County residents willing to participate. And best of all, homeowners can lease from SolarCity instead of having to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to buy equipment that may become obsolete in a few years. SolarCity monitors all clients’ installations online to ensure that they are running at peak performance, and also makes house calls for maintenance as needed.
While California is no doubt a leader in residential solar power, the concept is spreading. Neighborhood Solar, for instance, is a Colorado-based nonprofit formed to accelerate the adoption of residential solar power in the Denver metro area. The group organizes homeowners into collective solar purchasing groups, and negotiates significant discounts accordingly. “We act as an independent buyer’s agent,” the group reports on its website, “with the goal of providing the best value to residential solar purchasers while helping installers put up more solar at reduced overhead costs.”
Community-based groups like GoSolarMarin and Neighborhood Solar are springing up all over the country, and dozens of solar companies have now adopted the community installation model. Community leaders interested in neighborhood-scope solar programs should shop around for the best prices and service guarantees before signing with any one solar provider. There’s a lot individuals can do to be part of clean energy solutions; there’s even more a group working in concert can accomplish, and community-based solar is but one bright and shining example.
For more information, contact Drake Landing Solar Community at www.dlsc.ca; GoSolarMarin at www.gosolarmarin.com; SolarCity at www.solarcity.com; and Neighborhood Solar at www.neighborlysolar.com.
Send your environmental questions to: EarthTalk, PO Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read past columns online at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk is now a book! Information is available at www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.
Think of yourself as a sixty-six-thousand-pound gorilla
—Randy Udall, Writers on the Range
Back in the 1960s, when NBC was first developing the Star Trek series, a producer fretted that “Spock, the guy with the pointed ears,” would scare every kid in America. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, was a humanoid from the planet Vulcan, and Vulcans are what we humans would call hard-hearted. They don’t believe in fairy tales and pixie dust, that Dorothy can click her heels and go home again.
When it comes to energy, the scientist who best exemplifies Vulcan logic is Vaclav Smil. The world’s foremost energy historian, he began a recent essay with this blunt statement: “Our transition away from fossil fuels will take decades—if it happens at all.”
A distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba, Smil finds most American energy discussions maddening. He does not believe that our cars will soon be powered by fuel cells, that clean coal can solve the climate problem, or that venture capital will discover an energy analogue to the cellular phone. He calls Al Gore’s proposal to re-power America with renewable energy in a decade “delusional.”
Energy systems are built out of copper and steel and megatons of concrete. Their operating systems don’t change; sixty hertz never goes obsolete. Upgrading power plants is generally unnecessary, except where pollution controls are concerned, and replacing them is expensive, which is why there are hundreds of forty-year-old coal plants. In short, you can throw your laptop out every few years and order a new one, but Hoover Dam will still be plugging the Colorado River centuries from now.
Given climate realities, we desperately need a rapid energy transformation, but wishing can’t make it so. As a Vulcan might say, what is desirable is not necessarily probable. James Watt’s steam engine revolutionized the mining and transportation of coal, but it still took a century for coal to displace wood. Solar photovoltaic cells were invented fifty-five years ago, and yet today in the United States, they produce less electricity than Glen Canyon Dam. Eight years after its introduction, the ingenious Prius has yet to become one percent of the automotive fleet.
Like it or not, Smil believes we are captive to past investments, to the multi-trillion-dollar energy networks we have already created, and, above all, to the scale of our energy appetites. Only the last of those factors seems amenable to rapid change, and thus his advice to President Obama: “Explain to the nation that Americans, who consume twice as much energy per capita as rich Europeans (and have nothing to show for it), should try to live within some sensible limits, which means using less fuel, not more.”
In his books, Smil explains how prehistoric cultures harvested the energy from sunlight, plants, and firewood. In the Southwest, energy shortages were generally caused by drought and expressed as famine. When the Anasazi ran short of protein, they began eating each other: “man corn.”
We have much larger appetites today. Melanie Moses, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, calculates that a typical North American consumes energy at a rate sufficient to sustain a sixty-six-thousand-pound primate. That’s a very big ape, and Smil is not the only one asking whether it’s realistic to meet his gargantuan appetite with wind and solar, dilute flows of power that today provide less than one percent of U.S. energy. Unlike oil shale—the thermodynamically doomed effort to turn chicken manure into chicken salad—wind, solar, and geothermal have high energy returns and a bright future. Nonetheless, it will take many doublings before they will meet a significant percentage of our needs.
Smil can envision running a lightly populated state like Montana or Wyoming on renewables once their fossil fuels run out. Urban areas present a more difficult problem. By abusing a calculator and common sense, one can sketch out a renewable blueprint for a city like Phoenix, but after awhile the numbers begin to seem like so much Hohokam. Phoenix long ago exceeded its carrying capacity and is likely to remain dependent on imported oil, gas, and nuclear power for as long as such things last.
In his personal life, Smil is an avid conservationist, proud of his super-efficient house and frugal Honda. In his recent work, there is a hint of frustration with what he sees as the cannibalization of our host planet. Contemplating our journey to the future, where no man has gone before, he writes, “I am always trying to imagine what would be the verdict of a sapient extraterrestrial informed about the behavior of affluent Earthlings.” Unless saving energy quickly becomes the nation’s focus, we have the answer: “Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.”
Forester’s log: forest modeling
I’m clicking on pull-down menus in my sleep. It’s certainly not the first time I have dreamed about my work as a forester. A standard marking crew jest is to complain about never getting paid for all the trees marked in our dreams while preparing timber sales. Or the miles of fire line built. Or the inventory data collected. Or the trees planted. Days spent as a forester often spill over into nights, and although many of these jobs seem repetitive, I know when I dream of the task, I am internalizing decision-making processes. I am building intuition. Now I am pulling down menus, making decisions about how many trees to cut or how many times to burn, and under what conditions.
In my dreams, the model always runs perfectly. The cartoon trees grow, get cut, burn; baby trees come up; the years click by; I am presented a visual diagram of the forest ten years, fifty years, a hundred years from now. I may not like the results, so I change the strategy: I cut more trees; I cut less; I burn more often; I don’t burn; I keep more large trees; I cut fewer small trees. Each time I run the model, I see how the forest changes based on the input I provide.
In class, the computer software is less forgiving. I get bogged down. Although many of my classmates use the Forest Vegetation Simulator (USDA Forest Service) in their work, this is my first time using the program. The government freeware has been developed over several decades and is based on hundreds of research papers and thousands of combined years of forest experience. Using the computer, the forester has an opportunity to apply many different management options to the same forest stand, and analyze the results of each decision over time. Lacking any training with the program, I am fascinated, but confounded.
The class, Rocky Mountain Regional Silviculture, is held in Fort Collins, Colorado. The two-week course is co-hosted by three western universities and draws participants from seven states. Most of the course attendees are either certified silviculturists or working toward certification status. All of us have jobs with a government agency—most with the Forest Service or Bureau of Indian Affairs, but a few of us work for tribes or states.
Silviculture is the branch of forestry that applies knowledge of how trees grow to manage forests that are healthy and provide various benefits. The intensive coursework includes literature reviews and class discussions on current issues in forest health, homework assignments to determine cutting prescriptions given various goals, and group projects and presentations that utilize many skills, including computer modeling. The bottom line is the concept of “density management.”
Tree density: too many trees create forests that burn too hot, attract too many bugs, and grow ever-so-slowly. In our jobs, we are involved with removing trees, via thinning, timber-harvesting, or prescribed burning. We attend this course to tweak our practice, to improve our judgment, to insure that we are doing the best job we can with the best science available.
As the days go by, my skills at the keyboard improve. My cartoon forests grow or die depending on how much space the trees have to thrive. I learn how regular treatments result in more resilient forests that withstand wildfire and insect outbreaks. I work with data that ranges from southern New Mexico to northern Utah. On the last day, my team presents options for managing a ponderosa pine stand in South Dakota. Not only have I become acquainted with new tools, but I have gained a support network of thirty other foresters across the west.
Heading home, I wonder how many more nights I will dream of computer menus and cartoon forests.
The Forester’s Log is a monthly column published in newspapers and magazines primarily in the American west. Stuever is a forester (and Placitan) in the American Southwest. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Helping may hurt local wildlife
—New Mexico Department of Game and Fish
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish receives numerous calls each year from concerned individuals who find what they think are orphaned or abandoned deer fawns and elk calves. Some people pick up the animals and take them to local veterinarians, zoos, or their local Game Department offices. While there is no intention of harming the young animals, people need to realize that picking up these babies greatly decreases their chances of survival.
Deer and elk leave their young alone while they move off to forage for food and water. The young normally are left in areas that provide good cover and relative safety. The fawn or calf may be left alone for several hours depending on cover availability, distance to food and water, and other factors, including human presence. The mothers will return to their young when they feel that it is safe to do so.
It’s not uncommon for people to find fawns or calves lying hidden in the grass or brush, especially this time of year. Keep in mind that mom is probably somewhere in area and will return to take care of the fawn or calf.
In addition to picking these young animals up, some people feed the babies cow’s milk, which can lead to serious complications when and if the young animals end up at a rehabilitation facility or zoo. Regular cow’s milk doesn’t have the necessary nutrients needed to keep fawns or elk calves healthy.
The best thing you can do if you find a fawn or calf that you think is orphaned or abandoned is to leave it alone and contact your local conservation officer or Department office. It is unlawful to pick up game animals or any protected species, of any age, without a proper permit or documentation from the Department of Game and Fish.
Think about it if you find a baby deer fawn or elk calf. Your actions may not only affect you, but also the animal you think you are rescuing.
Placitas Recycling Center closed July 4
The Placitas Recycling Center will be closed for the holiday on Saturday, July 4. This is not a usual closure date for the center, but the Placitas Recycling Association (PRA) has made this exception in view of the July 4th holiday falling on a Saturday this year. The PRA apologizes for any inconvenience to the community, but felt it was not reasonable to ask volunteers to work on the holiday. The center will be open as usual from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m. the following Saturday, July 11.
Now that summer is in full swing and the weather is warmer, visitors to the Recycling Center are asked to pay extra attention to rinsing out plastic containers and making sure there is no food residue on cardboard or aluminum brought to the center. Food and drink residues can attract insects and rodents, as well as make it unpleasant for volunteers working at the center. “Some of the containers that come in can get pretty gross,” commented PRA President John Richardson. “Take pity on your neighbors who are donating their time to support community recycling!” Recyclers are also reminded to remove the caps from their plastic bottles. The center can only accept No.1 and No. 2 plastics, and the bottle caps are generally a lower grade of plastic.
In addition to plastics, the center takes white/pastel office paper (including shredded paper), mixed paper (including newspaper), brown paper bags, cardboard, aluminum, ink jet printer cartridges (no laser cartridges), and bagged polystyrene peanuts. The center also keeps lightly-used cardboard moving boxes on hand for public use. Visitors are encouraged to separate their materials before bringing them to reduce sorting time on site. “And please don’t leave bags outside the fence,” pleads Richardson. “That’s simply littering. We are not garbage collectors.”
The all-volunteer Placitas Recycling Center is located on Highway 165 one-half mile east of I-25. It is open Saturday mornings, except the Saturdays before Easter, Labor Day, and Christmas, and after Thanksgiving—and as noted above, this July 4, which falls on a Saturday. Volunteers are always needed and are invited to sign up at the center during operating hours. For more information about the center and the materials it accepts, please visit placitasrecycling.com.